Abstract Classes

If you were creating software that allowed the user to draw rectangles and ovals by clicking the mouse at a location and then dragging and releasing to define the width, what classes would you need?


Figure 1: Software that lets the user click and drag to create ovals and rectangles.

One way to identify the classes you need is to underline the nouns in the description. This would give you Rectangle and Oval as two possible classes. Both of these are kinds of simple shapes that can be defined by two points. So you could create a SimpleShape class that keeps track of two points and perhaps the color to draw the shape in.

Could you actually create a SimpleShape object? What would it look like? How would you draw it? Since we don’t know what a SimpleShape looks like we can make the class abstract which means that you can not create any objects of that type.


To declare a class to be abstract use the abstract keyword before the class keyword as shown below.

public abstract class SimpleShape

Abstract Classes Can’t be Instantiated

You can’t create a new object of an abstract class. If you try you will get an error. Run the example below to see the error.

Abstract Classes Exist to be Subclassed

What is an abstract class good for if you can’t create any objects from it? You can use it as a parent class for subclasses.


Abstract classes often have at least one abstract method (a method that has the keyword abstract in the declaration and no method body), but they don’t have to. Abstract classes can have constructors, fields, and methods with bodies (non-abstract methods). If you create a class with at least one abstract method, the class has to be declared to be an abstract class.

An abstract SimpleShape class could have constructors and fields to track the points and methods that calculate the width and height of the shape. The only method that has to be abstract is the draw method, since we don’t know how to draw a SimpleShape.

Abstract classes are typically used when you want to put some data and/or behavior in a parent class, but at least one method needs to be abstract and overridden by the child class(es). The SimpleShape class can have an abstract draw method and then the children classes can specify what draw does.


Figure 3: An abstract SimpleShape class with an abstract draw method

You can download a zip file with all the code for the shapes example by clicking on the following link Look at the Shape class. Notice that it has constructors, fields, and non-abstract methods as well as the abstract draw method. Look at the Rectangle and Oval classes as well. Can you create a new Line class? Also add “Line” to ButtonPanel.java’s array of shapeNames.

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