As Japanese culture continues to become mainstream internationally, more people are enjoying manga and anime. However, the light novel remains something of an enigma. 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 deepen your appreciation for how the stories we love are made!
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What is a Light Novel? A Quick Definition and History
A light novel, traditionally, is a small and inexpensive type of novella 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 phrase is sometimes shortened to LN.
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're defining the light novel by its common characteristics, particularly when it comes to late 20th and early 21st-century output.
Light novels were originally produced in a similar way to manga, starting in magazines with chapters from multiple stories before being released as complete books.
Nowadays, there are different ways light novels are made. Many anime adaptations, such as The Rising of the Shield Hero, first achieve groundswell on Shousetsuka ni Narou before being picked up for print. Others, such as DanMachi, win competitions as a way into the publishing world.
What's the Difference Between a Light Novel and a Regular Novel?
Light novels are often seen as a subculture in Japan's vast storytelling landscape. Common differences between light novels and regular novels often include the physical book, genres covered and target audiences.
Light novels are usually around or below 50,000 words in length – the lower end of the average novel word count – 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).
Light novels are often created at a much faster pace than traditional or American novels, with some extremely proficient authors producing a new LN every month. They are also frequently produced as a series, with a story unfolding over multiple volumes.
The audience can be another differentiator for light novels, as some people classify all Japanese fantasy stories targeted at young adults or children as light novels. However, this isn't always the case and can make the line between novel and light novel harder to understand.
A good example of a story that blurs the line between light novels and novels is Lonely Castle in the Mirror, whose film adaptation was released in 2022. Despite having fantasy themes appealing to a young adult audience, its length and 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? The Difference Between Manga and LN Explained
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.
Published light novels will regularly be accompanied by illustrations, both on the cover and inside the book. Sometimes, this is done to appeal to fans of manga who want visuals with their stories.
Unlike manga, where the images convey what's happening at each stage, light novel images don't have a tangible impact on the narrative; they rarely contain new or important information not presented in the text.
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:
There are some instances where an existing manga or anime will be adapted into a light novel, but these are much rarer. Often, it's done in a spin-off style 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 creator's skill (and 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 more 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 both manga and light novels say they prefer the light novel over the manga because it offers more detail into the world. 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!