How can I add reflection to a C++ application? – Dev

The best answers to the question “How can I add reflection to a C++ application?” in the category Dev.


I’d like to be able to introspect a C++ class for its name, contents (i.e. members and their types) etc. I’m talking native C++ here, not managed C++, which has reflection. I realise C++ supplies some limited information using RTTI. Which additional libraries (or other techniques) could supply this information?


There are two kinds of reflection swimming around.

  1. Inspection by iterating over members of a type, enumerating its methods and so on.

    This is not possible with C++.

  2. Inspection by checking whether a class-type (class, struct, union) has a method or nested type, is derived from another particular type.

    This kind of thing is possible with C++ using template-tricks. Use boost::type_traits for many things (like checking whether a type is integral). For checking for the existance of a member function, use Is it possible to write a template to check for a function’s existence? . For checking whether a certain nested type exists, use plain SFINAE .

If you are rather looking for ways to accomplish 1), like looking how many methods a class has, or like getting the string representation of a class id, then i’m afraid there is no Standard C++ way of doing this. You have to use either

  • A Meta Compiler like the Qt Meta Object Compiler which translates your code adding additional meta informations.
  • A Framework constisting of macros that allow you to add the required meta-informations. You would need to tell the framework all methods, the class-names, base-classes and everything it needs.

C++ is made with speed in mind. If you want high-level inspection, like C# or Java has, then I’m afraid i have to tell you there is no way without some effort.


What you need to do is have the preprocessor generate reflection data about the fields. This data can be stored as nested classes.

First, to make it easier and cleaner to write it in the preprocessor we will use typed expression. A typed expression is just an expression that puts the type in parenthesis. So instead of writing int x you will write (int) x. Here are some handy macros to help with typed expressions:

#define REM(...) __VA_ARGS__
#define EAT(...)

// Retrieve the type
#define DETAIL_TYPEOF_HEAD(x, ...) REM x
#define DETAIL_TYPEOF_PROBE(...) (__VA_ARGS__),
// Strip off the type
#define STRIP(x) EAT x
// Show the type without parenthesis
#define PAIR(x) REM x

Next, we define a REFLECTABLE macro to generate the data about each field(plus the field itself). This macro will be called like this:

    (const char *) name,
    (int) age

So using Boost.PP we iterate over each argument and generate the data like this:

// A helper metafunction for adding const to a type
template<class M, class T>
struct make_const
    typedef T type;

template<class M, class T>
struct make_const<const M, T>
    typedef typename boost::add_const<T>::type type;

#define REFLECTABLE(...) \
static const int fields_n = BOOST_PP_VARIADIC_SIZE(__VA_ARGS__); \
friend struct reflector; \
template<int N, class Self> \
struct field_data {}; \

#define REFLECT_EACH(r, data, i, x) \
PAIR(x); \
template<class Self> \
struct field_data<i, Self> \
{ \
    Self & self; \
    field_data(Self & self) : self(self) {} \
    typename make_const<Self, TYPEOF(x)>::type & get() \
    { \
        return self.STRIP(x); \
    typename boost::add_const<TYPEOF(x)>::type & get() const \
    { \
        return self.STRIP(x); \
    const char * name() const \
        return BOOST_PP_STRINGIZE(STRIP(x)); \
    } \
}; \

What this does is generate a constant fields_n that is number of reflectable fields in the class. Then it specializes the field_data for each field. It also friends the reflector class, this is so it can access the fields even when they are private:

struct reflector
    //Get field_data at index N
    template<int N, class T>
    static typename T::template field_data<N, T> get_field_data(T& x)
        return typename T::template field_data<N, T>(x);

    // Get the number of fields
    template<class T>
    struct fields
        static const int n = T::fields_n;

Now to iterate over the fields we use the visitor pattern. We create an MPL range from 0 to the number of fields, and access the field data at that index. Then it passes the field data on to the user-provided visitor:

struct field_visitor
    template<class C, class Visitor, class I>
    void operator()(C& c, Visitor v, I)

template<class C, class Visitor>
void visit_each(C & c, Visitor v)
    typedef boost::mpl::range_c<int,0,reflector::fields<C>::n> range;
    boost::mpl::for_each<range>(boost::bind<void>(field_visitor(), boost::ref(c), v, _1));

Now for the moment of truth we put it all together. Here is how we can define a Person class that is reflectable:

struct Person
    Person(const char *name, int age)
        (const char *) name,
        (int) age

Here is a generalized print_fields function using the reflection data to iterate over the fields:

struct print_visitor
    template<class FieldData>
    void operator()(FieldData f)
        std::cout << << "=" << f.get() << std::endl;

template<class T>
void print_fields(T & x)
    visit_each(x, print_visitor());

An example of using the print_fields with the reflectable Person class:

int main()
    Person p("Tom", 82);
    return 0;

Which outputs:


And voila, we have just implemented reflection in C++, in under 100 lines of code.


Reflection is not supported by C++ out of the box. This is sad because it makes defensive testing a pain.

There are several approaches to doing reflection:

  1. use the debug information (non portable).
  2. Sprinkle your code with macro’s/templates or some other source approach (looks ugly)
  3. Modify a compiler such as clang/gcc to produce a database.
  4. Use Qt moc approach
  5. Boost Reflect
  6. Precise and Flat Reflection

The first link looks the most promising (uses mod’s to clang), the second discusses a number of techniques, the third is a different approach using gcc:




There is now a working group for C++ reflection. See the news for C++14 @ CERN:


Edit 13/08/17:

Since the original post there have been a number of potential advancements on the reflection. The following provides more detail and a discussion on the various techniques and status:

  1. Static Reflection in a Nutshell
  2. Static Reflection
  3. A design for static reflection

However it does not look promising on a standardised reflections approach in C++ in the near future unless there is a lot more interest from the community in support for reflection in C++.

The following details the current status based on feedback from the last C++ standards meeting:

  • Reflections on the reflection proposals

Edit 13/12/2017

Reflection looks to be moving towards C++ 20 or more probably a TSR. Movement is however slow.

  • Mirror
  • Mirror standard proposal
  • Mirror paper
  • Herb Sutter – meta programming including reflection

Edit 15/09/2018

A draft TS has been sent out to the national bodies for ballot.

The text can be found here:

Edit 11/07/2019

The reflection TS is feature complete and is out for comment and vote over the summer (2019).

The meta-template programing approach is to be replaced with a simplier compile time code approach (not reflected in the TS).

  • Draft TS as of 2019-06-17

Edit 10/02/2020

There is a request to support the reflection TS in Visual Studio here:


Talk on the TS by the author David Sankel:


Edit 17 March 2020

Progress on reflection is being made. A report from ‘2020-02 Prague ISO C++ Committee Trip Report’ can be found here:


Details on what is being considered for C++23 can be found here (includes short section on Reflection):


Edit 4th June 2020

A new framework has been released by Jeff Preshing called ‘Plywood’ that contains a mechanism for runtime reflection. More details can be found here:


The tools and approach look to be the most polished and easiest to use so far.

Edit July 12 2020

Clang experimental reflection fork :

Interesting reflection library that uses clang tooling library to extract information for simple reflection with no need to add macro’s:

Edit Feb 24 2021

Some additional clang tooling approaches:


Edit Aug 25 2021

An ACCU talk online at youtube is well worth a listen too it talks about current proposals to the standard and an implementation based on clang.


  •, branch paper/p2320
  • Compiler Explorer : use the p2320 trunk for the compiler version.


And I would love a pony, but ponies aren’t free. :-p is what you’re going to get. Reflection like you’re thinking about — fully descriptive metadata available at runtime — just doesn’t exist for C++ by default.