When writing about criminals it is sometime necessary for your fictional bad guys to, for a variety of reasons, conceal their identities. And they do so by wearing disguises, which could be anything from shielding the eyes by pulling a hat brim low over the eyebrows, to wearing elaborate makeup and a wig. These methods are extremely effective when found within the covers of a novel because you make it so. But could it be that easy to trick someone in real life? Do simple disguises work?

Well, obviously they don’t work as well when someone is familiar with the person who’s trying to conceal their identity. But when you’re not familiar with the person who’s attempting to disguise themselves, well, a simple change of hair style or color may be all that’s needed to fool someone, including trained observers, such as police officers.

When writing, keep in mind that people, even untrained observers, tend to look deeper than a friend or close acquaintance’s hair color or style than they would at someone they don’t know. Friends know the facial features of other friends—the lines  and shapes of the eyes, noses and mouths. They know the fine details, the features that can’t be readily or easily altered without major surgery. The same with family. They know those details almost as well as their own.

Strangers, on the other hand, see an overall picture of us. They’re not focusing on the crinkled lines and grooves around our eyes, or even the spattering of freckles on Sally Sue’s earlobes. At least not at first glance. Therefore, it’s easier to fool a stranger such as the character who entered the scene on page 47 of your latest book.

Two methods used by criminals to conceal their identities are impersonation and evasive disguises.

An impersonation disguise is trying to look like someone else, such as the jewel thief who dresses up in the clothing of Poirot’s sidekick, Hastings, to allow him to slip off the ship without being readily detected by police.

An evasive disguise is one that’s used to not look like yourself. A perfect example of this is the undercover police officer who wears clothing to better fit with the target group, change hairstyles (grow it long or shave the head), grow or shave facial hair, etc. Such as the transformation I made when working a longterm undercover narcotics assignment.

Me, working undercover narcotics.

Dig and Cover!

To take your character a step further. Let’s have him alter his looks while at the same time evading a professional tracker. Yes, the bad guy in your book, Squirt Jenkins, is running, and he’s running hard to prevent being captured by the hero of your book, Brute Studly.

So what should Jenkins, and others, do as part of a getaway plan? Well, for starters they must avoid leaving telltale signs that he’s been where he’s been, such as:

  • Don’t leave behind waste—gum, gum wrappers, soda cups, and the scraps of paper that tend to fall out of pockets when you’re digging for that single M&M that you dang well know fell from the bag a week ago when you tore the tiny sack with your car keys.
  • Do not do things in the woods that should be done in the privacy of a bathroom stall at Jimbo’s Truck Stop and Flower-A-Ranging Emporium. No human waste in the forest! If you absolutely must go, use a stick or rock or the heel of a shoe to “dig and cover.”
  • A famous tracker once said (I heard this a police training event) something to the effect of, “Don’t leave honey wells,” or honeypots, or honey-somethings. I don’t remember which. But it had something to do with honey. Anyway, what he was referring to was leaving a ton of evidence behind when making your way through areas where such evidence is really seen. These places are fields and yards filled with tall grasses and weeds, snow covered areas, sandy beaches, mud, etc. If you must walk in the snow, do so only when fresh snow is falling so that your tracks are covered. Hide your tracks!
  • Take care to not overturn leaves and pine needles and rocks and limbs. Don’t scrape bark from trees. And whatever you do, as creepy as they are, don’t break spiderwebs, leaving the sticky trails flopping in the breeze. To an experienced tracker, these things are like flashing neon arrows.
  • Don’t smoke, don’t eat smelly foods, don’t wear perfumes and colognes, and keep your body stink to a level that’s below that of Farmer Brown’s pigs. It would be a shame to go to the trouble of devising the perfect disguise, an oak tree, only to be discovered because you smell like a funky pile of high-schoolers’ dirty gym socks.
  • Stay low to the ground, especially at night. It’s a dead giveaway when you pass in front of a full moon while walking along a mountain ridge. Plus, it’s spooky.

To sum up, disguises work, especially evasion disguises. They’re the most effective.