Link in the Legend of Zelda games is never the most interesting character in his own adventures. He’s a shell, usually given a generic, world-ending motivation to go off on adventures, and the motives of those around him are usually much more fleshed out. This is usually justified because Link is a “Blank Slate” protagonist, designed to be able to be projected onto by any player due to his lack of specific personality attributes.
I don’t think Link is a well-defined character OR a blank slate protagonist. I think he’s something a little lazily. uncritically forgiven for resting in the middle of those two distinctions.
Link has definable and persistent character traits. He is courageous, something so core to his character he has a magic chunk of metal living in his hand to symbolise that fact. In many of the recent 3D Zelda games where he is afforded limited dialogue options, he is cheeky and playful. In Breath of the Wild, at times the only dialogue options available to Link cast him as impatient and dismissive. Some of his actions in Breath of the Wild (Gerudo Town Entry Quest) could even be argued to showcase the character as holding transphobic attitudes.
Link has personality traits that may not fit with those of the player.
Link is also a skinny, average height, often blonde-haired man. If he were truly designed to be a blank slate protagonist, it’d surely make zero difference to the game to offer a female variant of Link, or even give character creation options for him.
Link is a defined character, and excusing his poorly-written character as his “blank slate” nature is cutting Nintendo too much slack. They’ve avoided the key benefits of both crafted characters and of blank slate characters.
Joker in Persona 5 falls into a similar category of “not really a blank slate, but often considered one”. Joker is a character who had the bravery to step into a sexual assault scenario in an attempt to protect a victim, but paid a heavy price due to failings of the justice system. He’s societally looked down upon, which instilled him with a strong sense of justice and an unwillingness to trust police. He takes the punishment of criminals into his hands as a vigilante, out of a belief that trusting police to handle criminal cases will lead to innocent people like himself taking the fall for the crimes of the powerful.
Joker’s personality stats can be tweaked by player choice, he can be intelligent or charming, but, at his core, his dialogue options in conversations generally do not change. He has a set way or moving through the world. He is a set character. He’s once again a set character design too. A male character, tall and skinny, with short black hair. Nothing customisable about gender, race or appearance. This is because his stepping into that sexual assault scenario would have had very different connotations if he was anything but a well-behaved young man.
Joker is a set character who is never fully explored, but without the flexibility of a blank slate.
These two examples are far from alone. I really think we, as both players and critics, need to stop so readily using the “blank slate” crutch to defend examples of characters who are not given the flexibility of a blank slate, but are not given the depth of a designed set character. Let’s stop forgiving the middle ground under the defence of relatable blank slates unless developers commit properly to the idea of a relatable blank slate.