As Japanese culture continues to become internationally mainstream, more people are enjoying manga and anime. However, the light novel remains something of a mystery. Here, we compare light novels to manga and what the difference is between the two story formats.
Whether you're completely new to anime, manga or light novels or have a basic understanding, hopefully, this article will help you learn something new and appreciate how the stories we love come to be!
Related: The Best Sites to Read Manga Legally
What is a Light Novel? A Quick Definition
It should be said that there are a few debates about what a light novel really is, especially as their growing popularity is creating more variations across the medium.
For the sake of this article, we'll define the light novel by its common characteristics, particularly when it comes to late 20th and early 21st-century output.
A light novel, usually, is a comparatively small and inexpensive type of novel mass-produced in Japan, primarily for a young adult or teen audience.
The term light novel is a wasei-eigo – a Japanese phrase made from English words – pronounced ‘raito noberu’ (ライトノベル). The term is sometimes shortened to LN.
Light novels were originally produced in a similar way to manga, starting in magazines with chapters from multiple stories before becoming complete books.
Nowadays, there are many different ways light novels are made. Many recent anime adaptations, such as The Rising of the Shield Hero, first achieved groundswell on community sites like Shousetsuka ni Narou before their stories were picked up for print.
Light novels are often created at a much faster pace than traditional or western novels, with some extremely proficient authors producing a new LN every month.
What's the Difference Between a Light Novel and a Regular Novel?
Light novels are often seen as another subculture in Japan's vast storytelling landscape. As such, the differences that differentiate light novels from regular novels are a combination of physical qualities, genres and audiences.
Light novels are usually around or below 50,000 words in length and are often sold at A6 size in Japan, making them smaller, easy to produce and easy to dispose of after reading. Picture someone buying a newspaper to read on the train – it's a similar idea with light novels (and manga).
The audience is another differentiator for light novels. Some people classify all fantasy stories targeted at young adults or children as light novels, which can make the line between novel and light novel harder to understand.
One example of the complex difference between light novels and novels is Lonely Castle in the Mirror, whose anime adaptation is soon to premiere. Despite having fantasy themes appealing to a young adult audience, its length and seeming maturity – a manga adaptation classed it as a seinen – mean it's classed as a fantasy novel but not a light novel.
Do Light Novels Have Pictures?
Not all light novels have to have pictures, but many of them do include illustrations as part of the book.
The manga and light novel communities are very close to each other. Light novel chapters are sometimes included in manga magazines, at which point an illustration is usually included to grab the reader’s attention.
While light novels do often have illustrations, they only use words for their storytelling. Unlike manga, where the images convey what's happening at each stage, light novel illustrations only complement the written story.
What Comes First: Light Novel or Manga?
There is no rule regarding whether a light novel or manga comes first. However, in most cases, the light novel is adapted into a manga, then an anime.
There are many examples of anime that are adapted from stories with both light novels and manga. One example is Classroom of the Elite, which started as a light novel series and was then adapted into a manga before an anime was announced.
Other popular anime to follow a similar path (light novel to manga and then an anime) include:
- That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime
- Goblin Slayer
- A Certain Magical Index
On the other hand, there are many instances where an existing manga or anime will be adapted into a light novel to complement or expand upon the existing story.
Which is Better: Light Novel or Manga?
Obviously, there's no rule to say whether light novels or manga are better. Which format you prefer depends on personal tastes.
Light novels and manga both have particular strengths and weaknesses, so each story needs to be taken on its own merits. Ultimately, the success of a light novel or manga comes down to the skill of the creator (and potentially their editors).
Light novels tend to create deeper, plot-driven stories with more complex elements. A light novel usually has more time to set up a story with twists and turns compared to a manga which needs to grab readers with big visuals and frequent cliffhangers.
On the other hand, the illustrative medium of manga lends itself to more action-orientated and fast-paced stories. This style of storytelling is why many of the most popular anime were originally adapted from manga rather than light novels.
Also, manga tend to be more experimental with characters and settings, something which can be more challenging in light novels.
Many fans of anime adapted from light novels say they prefer the light novel over the manga because it tells a deeper story. However, the manga adaptation can deliver a quicker and more engaging experience.
It’s worth saying that there are stories that break these moulds in both manga and light novel formats. Ultimately, the best way to find out what type of story you prefer is to get out there and buy some light novels for yourself!