C++ – Why do we need virtual functions in C++

c++polymorphismvirtual-functions

I'm learning C++ and I'm just getting into virtual functions.

From what I've read (in the book and online), virtual functions are functions in the base class that you can override in derived classes.

But earlier in the book, when learning about basic inheritance, I was able to override base functions in derived classes without using virtual.

So what am I missing here? I know there is more to virtual functions, and it seems to be important so I want to be clear on what it is exactly. I just can't find a straightforward answer online.

Best Solution

Here is how I understood not just what virtual functions are, but why they're required:

Let's say you have these two classes:

class Animal
{
    public:
        void eat() { std::cout << "I'm eating generic food."; }
};

class Cat : public Animal
{
    public:
        void eat() { std::cout << "I'm eating a rat."; }
};

In your main function:

Animal *animal = new Animal;
Cat *cat = new Cat;

animal->eat(); // Outputs: "I'm eating generic food."
cat->eat();    // Outputs: "I'm eating a rat."

So far so good, right? Animals eat generic food, cats eat rats, all without virtual.

Let's change it a little now so that eat() is called via an intermediate function (a trivial function just for this example):

// This can go at the top of the main.cpp file
void func(Animal *xyz) { xyz->eat(); }

Now our main function is:

Animal *animal = new Animal;
Cat *cat = new Cat;

func(animal); // Outputs: "I'm eating generic food."
func(cat);    // Outputs: "I'm eating generic food."

Uh oh... we passed a Cat into func(), but it won't eat rats. Should you overload func() so it takes a Cat*? If you have to derive more animals from Animal they would all need their own func().

The solution is to make eat() from the Animal class a virtual function:

class Animal
{
    public:
        virtual void eat() { std::cout << "I'm eating generic food."; }
};

class Cat : public Animal
{
    public:
        void eat() { std::cout << "I'm eating a rat."; }
};

Main:

func(animal); // Outputs: "I'm eating generic food."
func(cat);    // Outputs: "I'm eating a rat."

Done.