In 1990, Keita Kamikita, namely the system operator of an online sci-fi and fantasy forum, used the term “light novel” for the first time. With the term “light novel” – from the wasei-eigo “raito noberu” – he referred to some sci-fi and fantasy short stories partially illustrated by some famous Japanese artists and which had started to draw the attention of many manga fans. Actually, the fact Kamikita named the genre in that period doesn’t mean light novel genre was born in the Nineties. In fact, the first light novels appeared at least twenty years before with the foundation of the publisher Sonorama Bunko, but had to wait a little more to reach the success they are enjoying nowadays.
Thus, light novels became famous especially thanks to manga readers, who got interested in them because of the incredible similarities between the two mediums. Well, those who know a little about Japanese entertainment industry can certainly understand that light novels and manga can’t be considered as separate forms of media; indeed, they are born from the same matrix, are conceived with the same forma mentis, are often each other’s adaptation, and in most cases, both can become the basis on which anime are made. However, there are many differences between the two genres which differentiate them in style, form, imaginative freedom, and audience, of course. Curious to know what are these differences are? So, let’s find it out the difference between a light novel vs manga together!
Words VS Illustrations
The first thing you will notice while reading a light novel is that it basically consists of a wholly written text and a few manga-like illustrations. The illustrations usually appear on the cover – most likely to show how the main characters look – and where there is a highlight in the plot. Sometimes, a light novel can contain few comic pages that makes it seem like a manga containing a long narrative part, but actually a light novel could be more easily compared to a classic short story (or novella) which contains text that is written in a proper literary and descriptive style, and is divided into paragraphs. All characteristics which manga lack.
Manga can be, in fact, are basically entirely made of illustrations, namely containing the classic balloons in which text appears in the form of a conversation (with varying degrees of formality) between two characters. Of course, situations and actions, which are clear to a manga reader thanks to the drawings are described with words in a light novel. Therefore, we can say that comparing a manga and a light novel is like comparing a comic to a book.
Compact Stories VS Long Serializations
Another difference between a light novel and a manga lies in the length that is considered appropriate for a story. Those who read manga are, most of the time, used to very long serializations since a manga can sometimes reach a total of 200, 300, or – as in the case of One Piece – even more than 800 chapters. Besides, a chapter is generally published weekly or monthly and, because of this, manga serializations can drag on for years and years, making you wait a very long time for the ending. Finally, an illustrated story of this length can require many volumes to be wholly collected.
On the opposite side, although light novels are properly divided into chapters in the same way as manga, light novels are usually published as proper books. Most often, they are made of volumes which cover a whole narrative arc – prologue, story, and epilogue. When a light novel is made of two or more volumes, the content of each book most likely regards different narrative arcs with a different time, different setting, and sometimes even different characters. There are some very famous light novels such as, for example, RE: Zero or No Game, No Life which are longer than an ordinary light novel and are serialized – although not in chapters. Naturally, whether a light novel becomes a series of books or not depends on the popularity of the work.
Gone Time VS Real Time
Talking about differences between a light novel and a manga, a very important one is the narrative style in which both kinds of work are written. Reading a manga is like seeing a conversation between two people that is happening in real time, and an illustrated scene is certainly easier to understand than a situation explained in words like in the light novel’s case. Furthermore, the text in a manga is more fluid and less intricate since there is a lack of sudden flashbacks, character thinking, and descriptions of unnecessary elements that would break the stream of the narration. In the end, since the characters who are talking are placed in a certain time and space which is real to them, the tense used for interaction is always the present, and the speech can both contains colloquialisms or be formal.
On the contrary, a light novel is less direct and more literary in narrative style than a manga. As we said before, even if a light novel’s content is the same as a manga’s, its form is more similar to a book which features some illustrations. The past tense is used to describe an action, a situation, or a character’s thought and feeling in the past, and the only times we can find the present tense are when the characters are interacting with each other (differently from a manga, in a light novel, a character can also act alone and interact with no one for a whole chapter or more). Except for when characters are talking to each other, colloquialism is very rare in a light novel’s text and authors tend to use a standard literary language. However, in line with the content, type of story, and the label “light”, the style is pretty simple, made of short phrases and repeated words. In short, a light novel focuses more on character’s inner world while a manga focuses more on context and a situation.
Mature Audience VS Just Want to Have Fun Teens
When we talk about the differences between a light novel and a manga, we can’t not mention the type of audience they are addressed to. Since manga and light novels share the same roots and features the same topics, it may seem logical that their audience is the same, but this is actually incorrect. The reason lays in the form of media used for each of the works which make it attractive for a certain kind of public or not. Let’s be honest; being illustrated and immediately understandable, a manga is the easiest and fastest way to enjoy a good story, in particular if you are a young teenager and are only interested in battle scenes.
While manga are generally read by people of all ages, including children, light novels are preferred by young adults or a more mature audience. Indeed, descriptions are not as obvious as seeing a character spring into action through illustration, and can be enjoyed mostly by those people who enjoy reading and can concentrate for a long time. Basically, not by all ordinary teenagers. Besides, reading a light novel assumes you are interested in a deeper kind of descriptive style. In fact, in light novels, characters’ emotions and feelings are explained in great details, so that it is possible to focus more deeply on what is in a character’s mind. So, summarizing, light novels are meant for a selected – and certainly more patience – kind of public.
Freedom of Imagination VS Ready-Made Fantasy
Finally, probably the biggest difference between a light novel and a manga lays in the amount of elements left to the readers’ imagination. The distinctive feature of a manga is the fact that it is illustrated. Indeed, just by scrolling through a manga’s pages the reader can see a world full of precise details flow in front of his eyes, and can easily become familiar with all characters’ physical characteristics, their style, their manners. Also the space in which the characters move comes to life, so that the reader has a whole ready-made world for him to be explored without giving it a thought.
Instead, in a light novel, little details such as what a character is wearing, what the place looks like, what kind of environment is surrounding him, what the weapons the characters are fighting with look like almost entirely depend on the reader’s tastes and imagination. It is true that an author of a light novel tries to give as many details as possible for his readers to figure what is going on out in the clearest way possible, but a big part of the job is certainly left to people’s creativity. Thus, if a manga serves fantasies on a silver platter, light novels leave people free to imagine the world and faces they prefer.
What is better? A visual story full of action and finely drawn or a story which explores the inner world of our favorite characters and lets you imagine it the way you want? Being based on the same concepts and being addressed to the same kind of audience, manga and light novels are two sides of the same coin, but they are still two different genres with their own peculiarities. Narrative style and the forms of media used to tell a story are the main differences between these two types of work that are deeply tied to the Japanese imaginative universe and that have made readers from all over the world dream about wonderful adventures.
And you? What do you prefer? Are you a manga reader or a light novel reader? Don’t forget to share your opinion with us by leaving a comment!