Collins' father was well-known Royal Academy landscape artist William Collins. The elder Collins wanted his son to follow him in the profession but when it became clear that Wilkie wouldn't pursue that career, the father wanted him to study law so he would have a steady income. Wilkie completed law studies but never practiced law.
As a student in boarding school, young Wilkie discovered his talent for storytelling when a classmate bullied him into telling him a story before going to sleep. Wilkie said if it hadn't been for the bully, he might never have been aware of his hidden power. His first published story appeared in a magazine when he was 19 years old. It was based on his experience as an apprentice clerk to a tea merchant. His first novel, a romance set in Tahiti, was rejected because, in his youthful exuberance, he had created scenes no respectable English publisher could print.
At 28, when he was still a law student, Collins met Charles Dickens, who was nearing 40 at the time, and was well established as a popular literary celebrity. Dickens published many of Collins' short stories and serialized some of his novels, first in Household Words (which Dickens edited) and later in All the Year Round (which Dickens owned). Dickens and Collins collaborated on theatrical productions and acted in plays together. They first appeared in Edward Bulwer-Lytton's work Not So Bad As We Seem right after they met in 1851. Dickens amateur theater company produced some of Collins' plays as well.
In his mid-30s, Collins began living with a widowed woman, Caroline Graves and her daughter. Though they were never married, Collins once listed the woman as his wife on a census report. Dickens serialized Collins' mystery novel, The Woman in White, beginning in 1860. The title character was based on Graves. Collins later married someone else, but returned to Graves (who had also married and left her husband). Collins maintained a home with Graves and a separate one with his wife for the rest of his life.
Collins' writing career made him wealthy and well known in England and America. But success brought other problems. Collins gained weight and suffered from gout. In seeking relief from pain, he became addicted to opium. Scholars say Collins unconventional domestic arrangements and his addiction led to a split with Dickens after many years of friendship.