A Simple Yet Useful Version of Generics

Traditionally, containers are seen as an area where generics with monomorphization are essential; who wants every key and every value in their hash table to be boxed? However, I think pretty much every use-case for generics in the context of containers can be replaced with something far simpler.

To start, let’s take a look at a simple implementation of a dynamic array in C. Everything in this post applies to any sort of container; I just chose a dynamic array because it’s the easiest to implement.

First, the basics:

#include <assert.h>
#include <string.h>
#include <stddef.h>
#include <stdio.h>
#include <stdlib.h>

typedef struct vec {
	char *ptr;
	size_t len;
	size_t cap;
	size_t elem_size;
} vec;

We’ll need functions to create a new vec and to destroy an existing one:

vec vec_init(size_t cap, size_t elem_size)
	return (vec){
		.ptr = calloc(cap, elem_size),
		.len = 0,
		.cap = cap,
		.elem_size = elem_size,

void vec_deinit(vec v)

And we’ll need to be able to push new elements:

void vec_push(vec *v, void *elem)
	// grow exponentially once we’ve filled the allocation
	if (v->len >= v->cap) {
		v->cap *= 2;
		size_t new_size = v->cap * v->elem_size;
		v->ptr = realloc(v->ptr, new_size);

	void *dst = v->ptr + (v->elem_size * v->len);
	memcpy(dst, elem, v->elem_size);

Finally, let’s add a function to index into the array:

void *vec_at(vec *v, size_t i)
	assert(i < v->len);
	return v->ptr + (v->elem_size * i);

Now we’re ready to test it out!

typedef struct person {
	char *name;
	int age;
} person;

int main() {
	vec v = vec_init(8, sizeof(person));

	vec_push(&v, &(person){ "luna", -1 });
	vec_push(&v, &(person){ "someone else", 92 });
	vec_push(&v, &(person){ "John Smith", 50 });

	for (size_t i = 0; i < v.len; i++) {
		person *p = vec_at(&v, i);
		printf("name: %s\nage: %d\n", p->name, p->age);


As expected, this prints the following:

$ ./a.out
name: luna
age: -1
name: someone else
age: 92
name: John Smith
age: 50

However, being C, this approach is error-prone. In fact, while writing this post I accidentally passed sizeof(int) instead of sizeof(person) to vec_init(), which took me a little while to figure out. Moreover, it also isn’t type-safe, so you could freely mix up a vec of integers and a vec of enums.

Of course, a language with generics like Zig, C++ or Rust wouldn’t have these problems. If we’re willing to forgo a tiny bit of performance, though, we can get the same developer experience as that of, say, Rust’s containers, but without the long compile times and binary bloat!

For every type of container imaginable – except for fixed size arrays – the data within the container is stored behind a pointer. This means that we can manipulate the container’s data without knowing its type, if we know the size of the type. We can store this size at runtime, exactly as we did in C with the elem_size field. I imagine a language which allows for the creation of type-safe generic APIs; but rather than stamping out copies of container code for each type the container is used with, instead the generic type parameter’s size is passed at runtime.

Luna Razzaghipour
17 February 2023