When you sit down to write your first Light Novel (LN) or Manga, you’ll want your readers to understand you. After all, first impressions are key. You’ll feel you need to include as many explanations as possible. But don’t.
You can say too much and most often do as a beginner. It’s the old adage: show, don’t tell.
But how can I expect my readers to understand me if I don’t explain myself? Easy.
Trust your audience.
You don’t have to explain. If your readers consume any form of Otaku media, there’s a good chance they already understand the nuances of your characters and setting. They know the ins and outs of the genre.
Of course, there may be a few cases in which your LN or Manga is the first they’ve ever read. However, there’s no sense in breaking your back to explain every little thing to 1% of your readers while annoying the other 99%.
Ok, you say, but how do I know what to explain and what to assume my readers already know?
Unfortunately, there is no way to truly know. Every reader’s knowledge base is different. Your genre and character archetypes may be foreign to one reader and old hat to the next.
However, there are a handful of elements you should always explain and several you don’t necessarily need to. I’ll break them down one by one. But before that, I’ll give you your most powerful weapon as an Otaku Creator that makes trusting your audience so much easier.
The Great Power of the Suspension of Disbelief
When you read any piece of fiction, you do so knowing it is fiction. Therefore, when a ghost appears or a hot alien crash-lands in the protagonist’s living room, you don’t give it much thought. It’s fiction. You know it’s not real.
When you have these ‘non-thoughts’, you are suspending your disbelief in what you know to be impossible in reality.
As a reader, you are willing to give up rational thought and critical thinking in order to be entertained.
Readers of any piece of fiction engage in this, but Otaku achieve it more easily than others. Because Otaku media often involves the absurd, Otaku can suspend their disbelief to an absurd extent.
On the few occasions I’ve tried to convert non-Otaku into Otaku, their dislike of whatever anime I showed them was due mostly to them thinking it too ridiculous.
I, who have been involved with it for over a decade, am fazed by nothing. Despite this, you cannot write down the most absurd thing you can imagine and expect a reader’s suspension of disbelief to trigger.
When it comes to fiction involving things that have no basis in reality, you must ground them in reality.
The hot alien cannot crash land in the trapezohedron-shaped spaceship floating in the frozen Xilaxv galaxy piloted by Cthulhu’s brother-in-law who controls an army of sentient space monkeys because, quite frankly—that’s absurd.
Ok, she can, but you’d be hard pressed to find any readers…
Stories are engaging because they are relatable on some level. You may not be able to directly relate with every story you encounter, but there are always elements you can relate to.
Thus, the person to which absurd things happen to must be grounded in reality. This is why average humans are surrounded by hot aliens and usually not the other way around. You can get away with a lot in Otaku media, but never forget that you can take it too far.
The Elements Otaku Already Know
Ok, with that in mind, let’s take the elements of Light Novel for example and see what you should explain and what you don’t necessarily have to.
Note: most of the following applies to any form of Otaku media.
What Readers Expect from the Light Novel Itself
LNs have several elements readers expect to find every time. You don’t have to design your LN to adhere to these guidelines, but readers won’t be shocked if you do.
The name implies the length. LNs are lighter novels. The average bestseller is 80k to 100k words, while an LN is 40K to 60K. Your readers don’t expect a long novel, so don’t feel like you have to deliver one.
The original basis for LNs were Visual Novels (VNs). This means lots of dialogue and a lack of detailed description. However, you don’t have the detailed sprites and backgrounds that VNs have.
So, you’ll need to put a little more work into describing where your story takes place and what objects and characters look like.
That said, readers don’t expect five pages describing the interior of a castle. Dedicating an entire chapter to two characters talking is perfectly fine and has been done a million times. That’s what LN readers come for after all, lots of unique character interaction.
Out with character descriptions and in with illustrations. While it’s good practice to describe every bit of your major characters so they really leave an impression, you can let your illustrations reinforce that image.
Readers expect illustrations in an LN, so don’t be afraid to use them to provide a greater impact than what you can describe yourself. A picture speaks 1000 words and all that.
LNs will always be regarded as ‘genre fiction’. All this means is you won’t usually find them on a college syllabus or being discussed in a literary magazine.
However, this does not mean they cannot be better than ‘literary fiction’. Genre fiction is exactly what it sounds like, fiction in a specific genre. The most common are Science Fiction (SF), Fantasy, and Romance. Throw in several others and the derivatives of each and you’ll soon find more genres than you can bothered to keep up with.
Thankfully, LNs are almost always a mix. They can, but they’re not expected to stick to their genre as closely as a standard novel.
SF fans expect certain elements that a SF LN doesn’t necessarily need to provide. Your base genre can be SF, but can also have the protagonist surrounded by cute girls (which makes it a Harem) who are all romantically interested in him (which makes it a Romantic Comedy). Rarely can a LN be pegged as specifically one genre or another.
So, don’t worry too much about adhering to one genre. Your readers already know that LNs wear several hats.
The plot of an LN looks like any other story’s does in that it has a beginning, middle, and end and follows the standard beats of a story with climaxes, etc.
However, because you’re likely writing a series, the essential DNA of your LN will be different from stand-alone stories.
Your readers don’t expect all the protagonist’s problems to be resolved in the first volume. Rather, they expect him to gain more and more problems that won’t be resolved until volume five or fifteen.
However, they do expect one major problem to be solved per volume. A novel needs a clear ending and you must provide it.
If you are writing a series, you must include an overall goal (to get rich / become the best dolphin whisperer) while completing several smaller goals along the way. Every volume should move your main characters one step closer to their ultimate goal.
Your readers won’t be upset if the MC winds up with more unsolved problems and mysteries by the end of a volume. There’s an unspoken promise that they will be resolved later. All you need to worry about is making your readers care enough to want those questions answered at all.
Readers Already Know a Lot About Your Characters
Characters are the backbone of your story. So, you should do everything you can to make it clear who they are and why they act the way they do, right?
Not quite. It may seem counterintuitive, but tropes are an LN Author’s best friend. This is especially true when writing characters. No two harems are the same, but the personalities present in each often overlap. And that’s a good thing.
Tropes / Archetypes
The Tsundere, the Childhood Friend, the Strange Transfer Student.
You know who they are, the way they act, and the things they’re apt to say and do. After seeing so many, you’re used to them, perhaps a little sick of them, but that can be remedied.
Readers expect these characters to appear in your LN and on some level want them to. No Harem is complete without a Tsundere to cause hilarious misunderstandings after all.
Don’t think you should avoid these sorts of characters because they’re tropes, embrace them for it. Not only does it make your job easier, your readers will have an easier time getting attaching to your characters.
Whether I want to or not, I’m always attracted to the cool, quiet girl and will immediately fall in love with anyone that fits that archetype even if she only showed up two sentences ago.
However, as I said, tropes can be annoying. It’s your job as an Author to make them interesting through a character’s dialogue, history, and so on.
The archetypes are only good as foundations for you to build a unique landmark upon that readers will want to visit over and over.
As almost all Otaku media comes out of Japan, it’s natural that the Japanese culture and its social customs will be acted out by its characters. Thus a number of character dynamics not present in other cultures have become staples of the genre.
So, they won’t appear strange to those familiar with Otaku media. Here are two you may be familiar with:
Senpai / Kouhai
Or Senior and Junior. This is a popular relationship as of late and always interesting due to the many ways it can be interpreted (teacher/student, teasing, lovers).
While this phenomenon occurs all over the world, the Japanese put special emphasis on it. It can be observed between school students in different grades or office workers with different levels of seniority. But to those acquainted with Otaku media, this dynamic holds much more weight than a quick glance would reveal.
If you are familiar, you immediately understand each characters standing in respect to each other. You know how they’re going to refer to each other and how they’re likely to interact.
Just by calling someone ‘Senpai’ in your LN, readers will immediately absorb tons of information about that character. And you didn’t have to spell out for them in full detail.
Onee-sama (Elder Sister) / Girl who looks up to her
This dynamic is similar to the above, but a little more nuanced. I mention it because I encountered a problem when I wrote a younger-sister character that affectionately referred to another girl who is not related to her as Big Sister and is very touchy-feely with her (see Toaru Kagaku no Railgun for the perfection of this dynamic).
One of my beta-readers who is totally unfamiliar with Otaku media thought the younger one wanted to be well…more than friends with the other.
This was not what I intended at all, as I was going for the typical Onee-sama character who is admired by a younger girl and wants to be like her, but isn’t in love with her.
Anyone familiar with Otaku media would’ve understood immediately, but not everyone is as cultured as us…
But again, there’s no point in trying to please everyone when you can write for those who are more likely to buy your LN in the first place.
Readers Are Already Familiar with Most Settings
Your setting can be anywhere and take place any time. However, there are a few staples you could employ to make your world-building easier. Here are a couple common LN settings:
This setting is the most common for Romantic Comedies or Harems plus any other genre that has action/fight scenes. This is used the most because it contains a million aspects to make inventing scenes so much easier.
1. It’s a home base. With the school as the focal point, you can write your characters into a variety of potential scenes.
- Chatting in-between classes
- Walking home from school together
- Going shopping in town after school together
2. It comes with built-in events. If your setting is in Japan, you immediately gain access to several staple ‘episodes’ that no one ever gets tired of.
- Field Trips
- Sports Day
- Culture Festivals
- Summer Vacation
- Golden Week
High-school settings will always have something to offer if you can’t think of where to take your story next.
Isekai (Parallel World)
This is a setting that’s become popular recently, but has always been around. Most readers will know what to expect going in.
- The set-up: Free prologue that writes itself. Your protagonist is either going to have to be teleported or outright killed by truck-kun to get to the Isekai.
- The world: Almost all are video-game style fantasy settings. Throwing in orcs, elves, dwarfs, dragons, and so on will require little explanation. The reader will just think to himself: “It’s a fantasy Isekai. Of course there are all these things.”
- The systems: You should make your magic / fighting systems unique. But you don’t have to spend several pages describing how the character shoots fire out of his hands. It’s enough for readers to know that A: we’re in a fantasy world, B: magic exists. Conclusion, it’s not that surprising she can make smores on command.
Let Your Audience Do All the Work
The best thing you can do for your readers is trust them. They already like Otaku media, you don’t have to re-explain to them how it all works.
One of the worst things you can do is insult a reader’s intelligence, but don’t purposely leave them in the dark either. If you present a unique piece of technology or need to say why the Tsundere has trust issues, please explain.
Just don’t take it too far. Using what your readers already know will make life much better for all parties involved.