Let’s consider a contrived example where you are representing people and their relationships. We want to represent a person’s name, social security number, address, and have pointers to mother and father.

typedef struct Person {
  char *name;
  char *address;
  int ssn;
  Person *mother;
  Person *father;
} Person;

Now, let’s say that we have some library which will create a queriable tree for us.

Person *mandy = insertPerson("Mandy", \
                  123331234, "Hut #13" 0, 0);
Person *naughtius = insertPerson("Naughtius", \
                  349830123, "Centurianville #2", 0, 0);
Person *brian = insertPerson("Brian", \
                  593013297, "Hut #13", mandy, naughtius);

This is all well and good. But there’s a problem. The user of this library can do something like this:

Person *mary = insertPerson("Mary", \
                  012309821, "Bethleham", 0, 0);
brian->mother = mary;

There might possibly be a use-case where we want to allow this to happen, but in general this isn’t desirable whatsoever. We really want to keep the fields mother, father, and ssn immutable. We can do this in the following way:

/* FILE: library.h */
typedef struct Person {
  char *name;
  char *address;
} Person;

int getSSN(Person *);
Person *getMother(Person *);
Person *getFather(Person *);
Person *insertPerson(char *, int, char *, Person*, Person*);

Now we have a struct Person which exposes only information that we will allow to be mutable. How can we use this cleanly and effectively? We define the following:

/* FILE: library.c */
#include "library.h"
typedef struct privatePerson {
  Person p;
  int ssn;
  privatePerson *mother;
  privatePerson *father;
} privatePerson;

How does this help us? First, consider the following:

privatePerson *mary = ...;
Person *mom = (Person *) mary;

What will happen here? First, recall how struct layout works. Since Person p is the first entry in struct privatePerson then the offset in the privatePerson struct is 0. This means that the memory location of Person p is the same as the struct privatePerson which contains it. So, when we cast to the Person pointer we are, in fact pointing at a Person object. So, insertPerson(…) will use a struct privatePerson internally but will return a struct Person. As will getMother(…).

/* FILE: library.c */
Person *getMother(Person *p) {
  privatePerson *who = (privatePerson *) p;
  return (Person *) who->mother;

This example illustrates how we can also cast back to a privatePerson from a Person. Note that this REQUIRES that the pointer to the struct Person also be a pointer to a struct privatePerson, i.e. you’ve already cast it once. We can’t ensure that our user will never malloc his own struct Person. The best we can do is provide factories for construction (insertPerson above) and strongly document that doing so is unsupported and will lead to undefined behavior.

Because struct privatePerson is defined within library.c, it won’t be visible to anyone who includes library.h. Just like with the previous post on opaque pointers, this isn’t magic. The user can still opt-in to violate our model by including his own definition of a privatePerson struct and casting back to it. Though hopefully by doing so the user will be perfectly aware that he’s breaking our API and thus is writing code that could potentially break in the next minor point release of the library.