How are they different and which one is better for anime?

Light novels and visual novels are two very different but equally popular mediums in Japan, both of which have received numerous hit anime adaptations.

Anime and manga may be the two most popular forms of Japanese media, but they are not the only media for telling cultural stories in the country. Light novels have become increasingly popular due to anime adaptations from them, and visual novels have had a similar reception, albeit to a lesser extent. Of course, as their names sound quite similar, many may wonder if these two mediums are the same thing.

The differences between visual and light novels go beyond just the media, as the types of stories they tell and the way they tell them further separate the two types of novels. This also makes one of them more suitable to become an anime than the other, at least in terms of material that already exists. Here’s what anime and manga readers should know about visual and light novels, some of which have become their favorite series in recent years.

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Light novels versus visual novels: What separates the two Japanese media?

Light novels are pretty well explained by the description of the medium. The titles of these books are usually around 50,000 words and are fairly easy to read, and most are aimed at a high school audience (although this is not always the case). While they are, of course, published in the traditional novel format, many are also serialized in magazines. This makes them analogous to the “pulp magazines” that were once popular in the West. As novels, the stories are told through text, although manga-style illustrations are used for the covers and some other parts of the book. The use of images helps these titles sell better, especially to anime and manga fans.

Visual novels are something else entirely, with the fact that these stories are essentially a type of video game. As a form of interactive entertainment, they are focused on narrative and have very little actual gameplay as thought of in the West. This makes them both similar to and different from the point-and-click adventure titles popular on PCs in other countries, as well as the “walking simulators” of modern gaming. Due to the lack of much interaction beyond scrolling through dialogue, these titles are still quite niche outside of Japan, although there is a large market for them in their homeland.

Light novels and visual novels are not exclusive to any particular genre, although there are some significant comfort zones within each medium. For example, light novels can be based on everyday life stories, with a classic romantic comedy Toradora! showing this. However, fantastic settings are also often present, as in the adaptation of a light novel Killers and modern short light novels such as Reincarnated as a sword. Visual novels also have an abundance of genre diversity, although the most famous of them are love stories. Adult-oriented erotic and visual novels are also popular, and some of them even have anime adaptations.

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Light novels are more suitable for anime adaptations than visual novels

Ainz Ooal dress in Overlord.

Although both mediums have had tons of anime based on them, one of them is a bit better than the other in terms of preparation for adaptation. Light novels, as mentioned, often have illustrations to match their text. So the character designs are already set, cementing the look of the characters in a way that normal novels usually leave to the imagination. This makes it easy for animators to easily replicate said designs for anime adaptation. Popular light novels are usually turned into manga before they become anime, giving said anime plenty of material to adapt and helping avoid filler issues.

The same goes for visual novels, but the strength of visual novels is actually something of a detriment in terms of adapting the entire story to an anime series. Visual novels are known for their branching paths, with different endings decided based on the player’s minor actions. This gives them great replay value as games, but makes it difficult to fit it all into a cohesive whole. Visual new anime as heartbreaking Clannad “fix” this with additional seasons showing those alternate paths, but it’s definitely a problem in terms of effectiveness. This is not always the case, and excellent adaptations of visual novels such as Stein; Door exist. Still, this is probably why so many more light novels have become manga and anime compared to visual novels — and with the growing popularity of the isekai genre, that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

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