Polymorphism with deserialization can be tricky. Here is a way to deserialize to the correct subclass with Gson and Kotlin in your Android application. The following page shows a solution for a sample API response built according to the json:api specification.

The problem

Say you have an abstract class, Vehicle, and 2 subclasses, Car and Boat:

abstract class Vehicle(val type: String)
class Car : Vehicle("car")
class Boat : Vehicle("boat")

Now say you want to deserialize the following type of object:

data class Property (
    val owner: String,
    val vehicle: Vehicle

With this example JSON:

    "owner": "John",
    "vehicle": {
        "type": "boat"

When you go to deserialize this, Gson will attempt to deserialize the vehicle field as a Vehicle object, instead of choosing to deserialize as a Boat. Gson would then throw an exception because abstract classes cannot be instantiated.

We need a way for Gson to tell which final class to deserialize to based on the object’s type field. For this particular example, we want the response object’s vehicle field to be of the class Boat.


Take a look at a sample Json API response:

    "data": [{
        "type": "boat",
        "id": "1",
        "attributes": {
            "engineType": "Jet Propulsion"
    }, {
        "type": "car",
        "id": "2",
        "attributes": {
            "bodyType": "Sedan"

We see that the data portion of the response contains 2 different types of objects, a boat and a car. Each of those objects contain a different set of attributes. We need a way to deserialize these attributes into their correct object types.

There are some libraries that can do this for us, such as the jsonapi-parser published by none other than Yigit himself. But this may not be as easy to implement if you already have a well-established API layer, or it may require more overhead on dependencies than you want. At the very least, we can delve into how it works and shed some light on the solution (or perhaps find our own).

Our solution: A custom Gson deserializer

To accurately deserialize to the correct object types, we need to look at the raw JsonElement before instantiating the class. Gson allows us to do this by registering a custom JsonDeserializer as a type adapter.

Step 1: The data models we need for JSON:API

First, let’s create the attributes objects for vehicles, cars and boats:

abstract class VehicleAttributes
class BoatAttributes(engineType:String)
class CarAttributes(bodyType:String)

Next, let’s stub out the super class of these attribute holders, known as Resource Objects (we will call them JsonApiResource):

open class JsonApiResource<T>(
        val type: String? = null,
        val id: String? = null,
        val attributes: T? = null,

Notice that this class is generically typed. We want to be able to pass in a custom attributes type in order to allow us to use this class for all JsonAPI responses.

We next want to create our container response class, known as a Document, which we are calling a JsonApiDocument:

open class JsonApiDocument<T>(
        val data: Array<JsonApiResource<T>?>? = null

This class is also typed to help categorize our different groups of responses.

Finally, we want to instantiate the response object and vehicle resource type classes for our vehicles:

class BoatResource: JsonApiResource<BoatAttributes>
class CarResource: JsonApiResource<CarAttributes>
class VehicleResponseDocument: JsonApiDocument<VehicleAttributes>

By explicitly declaring these types, we can pass them in directly to the Gson.fromJson() method for deserialization.

Step 2: The JsonDeserializer type adapter

class VehicleResourceDeserializer : JsonDeserializer<JsonApiResource<VehicleAttributes>> {
    override fun deserialize(json: JsonElement?, typeOfT: Type?, context: JsonDeserializationContext?): JsonApiResource<*>? {
        return when (json?.asJsonObject?.get("type")?.asString) {
            "boat" -> context?.deserialize(json, BoatResource::class.java)
            "car" -> context?.deserialize(json, CarResource::class.java)
            else -> null

Let’s take a second to talk over what this class is doing. When this is registered as a type adapter, and Gson sees an object with a declared type of JsonApiResource<VehicleAttributes>, it will defer to the deserialize method in this VehicleResourceDeserializer instead of using it’s own default typing.

So, when this deserialize method is triggered, we first check the type property of the json object, then inform the deserializer which is the correct final object to deserialize to.

Step 3: Usage

Our final step is to register and use the type adapter to deserialize our JSON API response:

fun parseResponse(json: String) : VehicleResponseDocument {
    val gson = GsonBuilder().apply {
        registerTypeAdapter(JsonApiResource::class.java, VehicleResourceDeserializer())

    return gson.fromJson(json, VehicleResponseDocument::class.java)

And voila! Our VehicleResponseDocument will contain resource objects of both car and boat attribute types. We have now made our own custom deserializer to allow for different resource data attribute types within the same Json API Document.

Some final thoughts

You may be thinking that there are ways to simplify this, and you’d be right. On the other hand, you may also be thinking that there are ways to make this work for broader applications, and you’d also be right. For instance, did you know that the Json API spec allows the data field to be either an array or a single object, uncontained? This means separate class types for both versions of the response.

There are many ways to accomplish the implementation of the JsonAPI. In many cases, this may seem tedious and would probably be easier to adopt a library that handles the bulk of this work.

Since this article is focused on an Android implementation, I’ll insert my opinion that the JSON:API specification is in general not very mobile friendly. It is much more easily used with weakly typed languages that are more common in web development, such as Javascript. But there are benefits and drawbacks to every API implementation, so if this is the route your API team has chosen, I hope this helps clear some of the mud.