How do function pointers in C work? – Dev

The best answers to the question “How do function pointers in C work?” in the category Dev.


I had some experience lately with function pointers in C.

So going on with the tradition of answering your own questions, I decided to make a small summary of the very basics, for those who need a quick dive-in to the subject.


Function pointers in C can be used to perform object-oriented programming in C.

For example, the following lines is written in C:

String s1 = newString();
s1->set(s1, "hello");

Yes, the -> and the lack of a new operator is a dead give away, but it sure seems to imply that we’re setting the text of some String class to be "hello".

By using function pointers, it is possible to emulate methods in C.

How is this accomplished?

The String class is actually a struct with a bunch of function pointers which act as a way to simulate methods. The following is a partial declaration of the String class:

typedef struct String_Struct* String;

struct String_Struct
    char* (*get)(const void* self);
    void (*set)(const void* self, char* value);
    int (*length)(const void* self);

char* getString(const void* self);
void setString(const void* self, char* value);
int lengthString(const void* self);

String newString();

As can be seen, the methods of the String class are actually function pointers to the declared function. In preparing the instance of the String, the newString function is called in order to set up the function pointers to their respective functions:

String newString()
    String self = (String)malloc(sizeof(struct String_Struct));

    self->get = &getString;
    self->set = &setString;
    self->length = &lengthString;

    self->set(self, "");

    return self;

For example, the getString function that is called by invoking the get method is defined as the following:

char* getString(const void* self_obj)
    return ((String)self_obj)->internal->value;

One thing that can be noticed is that there is no concept of an instance of an object and having methods that are actually a part of an object, so a “self object” must be passed in on each invocation. (And the internal is just a hidden struct which was omitted from the code listing earlier — it is a way of performing information hiding, but that is not relevant to function pointers.)

So, rather than being able to do s1->set("hello");, one must pass in the object to perform the action on s1->set(s1, "hello").

With that minor explanation having to pass in a reference to yourself out of the way, we’ll move to the next part, which is inheritance in C.

Let’s say we want to make a subclass of String, say an ImmutableString. In order to make the string immutable, the set method will not be accessible, while maintaining access to get and length, and force the “constructor” to accept a char*:

typedef struct ImmutableString_Struct* ImmutableString;

struct ImmutableString_Struct
    String base;

    char* (*get)(const void* self);
    int (*length)(const void* self);

ImmutableString newImmutableString(const char* value);

Basically, for all subclasses, the available methods are once again function pointers. This time, the declaration for the set method is not present, therefore, it cannot be called in a ImmutableString.

As for the implementation of the ImmutableString, the only relevant code is the “constructor” function, the newImmutableString:

ImmutableString newImmutableString(const char* value)
    ImmutableString self = (ImmutableString)malloc(sizeof(struct ImmutableString_Struct));

    self->base = newString();

    self->get = self->base->get;
    self->length = self->base->length;

    self->base->set(self->base, (char*)value);

    return self;

In instantiating the ImmutableString, the function pointers to the get and length methods actually refer to the String.get and String.length method, by going through the base variable which is an internally stored String object.

The use of a function pointer can achieve inheritance of a method from a superclass.

We can further continue to polymorphism in C.

If for example we wanted to change the behavior of the length method to return 0 all the time in the ImmutableString class for some reason, all that would have to be done is to:

  1. Add a function that is going to serve as the overriding length method.
  2. Go to the “constructor” and set the function pointer to the overriding length method.

Adding an overriding length method in ImmutableString may be performed by adding an lengthOverrideMethod:

int lengthOverrideMethod(const void* self)
    return 0;

Then, the function pointer for the length method in the constructor is hooked up to the lengthOverrideMethod:

ImmutableString newImmutableString(const char* value)
    ImmutableString self = (ImmutableString)malloc(sizeof(struct ImmutableString_Struct));

    self->base = newString();

    self->get = self->base->get;
    self->length = &lengthOverrideMethod;

    self->base->set(self->base, (char*)value);

    return self;

Now, rather than having an identical behavior for the length method in ImmutableString class as the String class, now the length method will refer to the behavior defined in the lengthOverrideMethod function.

I must add a disclaimer that I am still learning how to write with an object-oriented programming style in C, so there probably are points that I didn’t explain well, or may just be off mark in terms of how best to implement OOP in C. But my purpose was to try to illustrate one of many uses of function pointers.

For more information on how to perform object-oriented programming in C, please refer to the following questions:

  • Object-Orientation in C?
  • Can you write object oriented code in C?


Function pointers in C

Let’s start with a basic function which we will be pointing to:

int addInt(int n, int m) {
    return n+m;

First thing, let’s define a pointer to a function which receives 2 ints and returns an int:

int (*functionPtr)(int,int);

Now we can safely point to our function:

functionPtr = &addInt;

Now that we have a pointer to the function, let’s use it:

int sum = (*functionPtr)(2, 3); // sum == 5

Passing the pointer to another function is basically the same:

int add2to3(int (*functionPtr)(int, int)) {
    return (*functionPtr)(2, 3);

We can use function pointers in return values as well (try to keep up, it gets messy):

// this is a function called functionFactory which receives parameter n
// and returns a pointer to another function which receives two ints
// and it returns another int
int (*functionFactory(int n))(int, int) {
    printf("Got parameter %d", n);
    int (*functionPtr)(int,int) = &addInt;
    return functionPtr;

But it’s much nicer to use a typedef:

typedef int (*myFuncDef)(int, int);
// note that the typedef name is indeed myFuncDef

myFuncDef functionFactory(int n) {
    printf("Got parameter %d", n);
    myFuncDef functionPtr = &addInt;
    return functionPtr;


One of my favorite uses for function pointers is as cheap and easy iterators –

#include <stdio.h>
#define MAX_COLORS  256

typedef struct {
    char* name;
    int red;
    int green;
    int blue;
} Color;

Color Colors[MAX_COLORS];

void eachColor (void (*fp)(Color *c)) {
    int i;
    for (i=0; i<MAX_COLORS; i++)

void printColor(Color* c) {
    if (c->name)
        printf("%s = %i,%i,%i\n", c->name, c->red, c->green, c->blue);

int main() {



The guide to getting fired: How to abuse function pointers in GCC on x86 machines by compiling your code by hand:

These string literals are bytes of 32-bit x86 machine code. 0xC3 is an x86 ret instruction.

You wouldn’t normally write these by hand, you’d write in assembly language and then use an assembler like nasm to assemble it into a flat binary which you hexdump into a C string literal.

  1. Returns the current value on the EAX register

    int eax = ((int(*)())("\xc3 <- This returns the value of the EAX register"))();
  2. Write a swap function

    int a = 10, b = 20;
    ((void(*)(int*,int*))"\x8b\x44\x24\x04\x8b\x5c\x24\x08\x8b\x00\x8b\x1b\x31\xc3\x31\xd8\x31\xc3\x8b\x4c\x24\x04\x89\x01\x8b\x4c\x24\x08\x89\x19\xc3 <- This swaps the values of a and b")(&a,&b);
  3. Write a for-loop counter to 1000, calling some function each time

    ((int(*)())"\x66\x31\xc0\x8b\x5c\x24\x04\x66\x40\x50\xff\xd3\x58\x66\x3d\xe8\x03\x75\xf4\xc3")(&function); // calls function with 1->1000
  4. You can even write a recursive function that counts to 100

    const char* lol = "\x8b\x5c\x24\x4\x3d\xe8\x3\x0\x0\x7e\x2\x31\xc0\x83\xf8\x64\x7d\x6\x40\x53\xff\xd3\x5b\xc3\xc3 <- Recursively calls the function at address lol.";
    i = ((int(*)())(lol))(lol);

Note that compilers place string literals in the .rodata section (or .rdata on Windows), which is linked as part of the text segment (along with code for functions).

The text segment has Read+Exec permission, so casting string literals to function pointers works without needing mprotect() or VirtualProtect() system calls like you’d need for dynamically allocated memory. (Or gcc -z execstack links the program with stack + data segment + heap executable, as a quick hack.)

To disassemble these, you can compile this to put a label on the bytes, and use a disassembler.

// at global scope
const char swap[] = "\x8b\x44\x24\x04\x8b\x5c\x24\x08\x8b\x00\x8b\x1b\x31\xc3\x31\xd8\x31\xc3\x8b\x4c\x24\x04\x89\x01\x8b\x4c\x24\x08\x89\x19\xc3 <- This swaps the values of a and b";

Compiling with gcc -c -m32 foo.c and disassembling with objdump -D -rwC -Mintel, we can get the assembly, and find out that this code violates the ABI by clobbering EBX (a call-preserved register) and is generally inefficient.

00000000 <swap>:
   0:   8b 44 24 04             mov    eax,DWORD PTR [esp+0x4]   # load int *a arg from the stack
   4:   8b 5c 24 08             mov    ebx,DWORD PTR [esp+0x8]   # ebx = b
   8:   8b 00                   mov    eax,DWORD PTR [eax]       # dereference: eax = *a
   a:   8b 1b                   mov    ebx,DWORD PTR [ebx]
   c:   31 c3                   xor    ebx,eax                # pointless xor-swap
   e:   31 d8                   xor    eax,ebx                # instead of just storing with opposite registers
  10:   31 c3                   xor    ebx,eax
  12:   8b 4c 24 04             mov    ecx,DWORD PTR [esp+0x4]  # reload a from the stack
  16:   89 01                   mov    DWORD PTR [ecx],eax     # store to *a
  18:   8b 4c 24 08             mov    ecx,DWORD PTR [esp+0x8]
  1c:   89 19                   mov    DWORD PTR [ecx],ebx
  1e:   c3                      ret    

  not shown: the later bytes are ASCII text documentation
  they're not executed by the CPU because the ret instruction sends execution back to the caller

This machine code will (probably) work in 32-bit code on Windows, Linux, OS X, and so on: the default calling conventions on all those OSes pass args on the stack instead of more efficiently in registers. But EBX is call-preserved in all the normal calling conventions, so using it as a scratch register without saving/restoring it can easily make the caller crash.