The bone-dry definition of significator is a tarot card that represents the querent in a reading. It may be chosen ahead of time or drawn during the course of the reading, and many spreads don’t call for one at all.
I have resisted using significators from my first days in tarot. Usually I don’t feel a need for them. I read for myself most of the time, which means I know perfectly well who the reading is for: me. For those times I read for other people, it’s often for a friend who is in the room with me, and that’s enough for me to focus the reading on them—if the significator represents the querent, and I have the querent themselves, why use the significator? Which means that I’m most likely to use a significator for a reading for another person when that person isn’t present. It reminds me that even though I’m alone, just like when I do readings for myself, this really is for another person entirely.
My second objection has been harder for me to work around. Taking the significator from the deck and placing it in a fixed position in the spread feels restricting to me. I can’t help thinking that if I’d left that card alone, it might have shown up in the spread naturally and been the key to interpreting the entire reading, but here I’ve gone and chained it to the “S” position where it can only mean THE QUERENT. One solution for that would be to use a card from another deck as the significator—and believe me, I have more than enough to choose from (deck glut!). It sounds like a good idea, but I haven’t tried it yet, probably because I rarely feel like I have to use a significator in the first place.
(Neither of these issues is unique to me, of course. The second one, especially, is one of the most common objections readers have to using significators.)
But okay, sometimes I do want to use a significator. Then the issue becomes how to select it. The three methods I’m most familiar with involve 1) choosing a Court Card that describes the querent physically 2) choosing a Court Card that matches their personality, and 3) drawing the significator from the deck as part of the reading, same as all the other cards in the spread.
Physical appearance. Over time, each of the four suits of the Minor Arcana have become associated with some general physical traits, while the four ranks of the Court Cards have been assigned genders and ages. Pair the hair and eye color of your querent with the right age and gender Court Card, and you have yourself a significator. Reading for a blond white man in his twenties? Knight of Wands. Middle-aged African-American woman? Queen of Pentacles. This system has the advantage of being simple as all get-out if you have any idea of what the querent looks like, but it strains to include everyone who isn’t white (they’re all Pentacles, along with those white people who have dark hair and eyes). Also, it suggests that all mature adults are definitely male (Kings) or female (Queens), children (Pages) aren’t, and male teenagers and young adults are more decidedly male and older (Knights) than their female counterparts (Pages). Even if I didn’t find this offensive, it’s still a messier system than I’m willing to put up with.
Personality traits. The four suits can be associated with personality characteristics, often based on the four elements. A simple way to choose a significator is to match the Sun sign of the querent to the corresponding suit and then choose the rank of the Court Card using the same genders and ages as for physical appearance. So if that middle-aged African-American woman has her Sun in Sagittarius, the Queen of Wands would be her significator. I think this is slightly more individualistic than physical appearance alone, but it’s still pretty rigid as far as age and gender are concerned. Or you could try choosing the Court Card closest to the personality of the querent. Unfortunately this only works if you know the querent well, which is hardly practical when working with strangers. (Although I’m not beyond asking querents who are familiar with the tarot if they’ve got a preferred significator for themselves.)
Drawing a card. My favorite method right now is to draw a significator from the whole deck, not just the Court Cards. I figure this shows something important about that person in the context of this reading, rather than always use the same card to represent the entirety of a human life. I mostly use this method when I’m reading for myself, but it’s harder when reading for someone I don’t know well since the card chosen may not convey a situation more than a personality. It does let me dodge just about every other pitfall of the first two methods, though.
I’ve tackled the second problem by choosing a significator but not pulling it from the deck. If it shows up as one of the cards in the reading, it pulls my focus to that position, like a neon sign saying This is important! It feels more personal and individual to me than the weight that comes from a Major Arcanum in a spread. When I use the Queen of Swords as my significator, this is my favorite method, and it also works in spreads that don’t call for a significator. And a flexible system like this, with plenty of options, is the most likely way to entice me into using significators with any regularity.